Business intelligence: It ain't just for boffins

Donald Farmer, the 'Fairy Godmother' of business intelligence, on why James Bond's Q is the poster boy for data.

Last Updated: 17 Aug 2012

I should apologise. I’m rather breathless, having just finished a tough run as part of my marathon training. But after exercising, with the endorphins pumping, is a great time to write. Don’t worry, I showered first - this is a hygienic blog. I also did what many runners do immediately after training, I checked my stats.

I run with a free app that sends GPS data to a web service. I can log time, distance, speed, heart-rate and even uphill elevation. I’m a data guy, so I think of these numbers as ‘measures’. I get useful insights on my ‘aggregations’ and ‘dimensions’ across months, weeks, days and hours. I have key performance indicators in the form of personal records and training goals. This isn’t just a visually pleasing training app, its Business Intelligence (BI) for the 21st century deployed to an armband with one click.

This is why, when I think of BI, I imagine Q burrowing away with his minions in the labs under MI6 creating something fantastical for James Bond to go out and save the world with. It’s all very well giving a select group of people the means to create and discover something, but what if you gave everyone in the building the opportunity to get inventing with you? What could Q have created with Moneypenny’s input? We use analysis to make decisions, but we don’t decide alone.

Why should the software we use constrict the discovery process? Often the real value of an insight is unlocked when we collaborate and share knowledge. Police in southern Sweden used BI to track down a serial killer recently. They found associations in 10 years of crime data, and estimated that nine months of traditional analytic work was completed in one minute. Now that is exciting.

The way we interact with technology has also changed. We’ve all seen those videos of babies, gorillas and even cats playing with tablet devices. Touch interfaces enable highly intuitive exploration. They’re also a lot of fun. And so the process of learning should be too. Our minds aren’t rational Spock-like models. We to and fro between activities, our attention and observations diverted by associations and comparisons rather than by going straight down carefully calculated logic paths. We’re open to making better discoveries using software that works with our mental processes, rather than forcing us to learn uncomfortable, straitened, modes of thinking.

Say you’ve mislaid your wallet. You begin to imagine where you were when you last had it. In the kitchen after you unpacked the shopping. Then the phone rang and you put it in the fruit bowl. Bingo. What you don’t do is start from the very top. My name is Donald Farmer. I live on planet Earth. I live on the continent of North America. I live in Seattle. I live in an experimental woodland house. I drive a car. You get the picture…

BI, as we experience it today, is a far cry from the dictionary definition of the 1950s. In recent years I’ve seen its popularity grow rapidly thanks to a new band of non IT champions emerging to sing the praises of user-driven discoveries. If it were up to me, we’d stop calling it ‘Business Intelligence’ altogether. It’s boring. We’d name it ‘Business Discovery’ instead.

Donald Farmer is the product guy at Qlikview, a business discovery firm

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